Israel won't attend Cairo talks until Hamas sends answer

Netanyahu says Rafah offensive will go ahead with or without hostage deal

Hamas set to respond Wednesday to proposal said to include 40-day truce, release of almost 1.000 Palestinian prisoners for 20-33 hostages; PM: War won’t end until all goals achieved

Relatives and supporters of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza since October 7, hold placards and wave Israeli flags during a demonstration calling for their release, Tel Aviv, April 27, 2024. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Relatives and supporters of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza since October 7, hold placards and wave Israeli flags during a demonstration calling for their release, Tel Aviv, April 27, 2024. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Israel will launch a ground offensive in Rafah regardless of the success of truce talks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged Tuesday in a conversation with bereaved families and relatives of hostages opposing a deal with Hamas that would end the war in Gaza before the terror group has been toppled.

As Israel awaits a reply to its latest truce offer, it will not yet be sending a delegation to Cairo for hostage release and ceasefire talks, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel. A Hamas delegation reportedly departed Cairo with a promise to return with a written response to the proposal from Jerusalem.

“The idea that we will stop the war before achieving all its aims is not an option,” Netanyahu told the hawkish Gvura and Tikva forums, which represent families of some slain soldiers and some of the families of hostages held in Gaza, respectively. “We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there — whether or not there is a deal — in order to achieve total victory.”

According to a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office, the groups urged Netanyahu and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi to continue the war and resist international pressure to bring it to a conclusion. Israel’s declared twin goals of the war are the destruction of Hamas’s military and governance capacity, and the return of all hostages.

The meeting came before Netanyahu was slated to talk with far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who is also opposed to stopping the war and making concessions to Hamas. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has threatened to withdraw from the coalition if such a deal is signed, skipped Tuesday’s cabinet meeting in order to huddle with his Religious Zionism faction amid the disagreement.

Netanyahu, right, meets with members of the Gvura Forum and Tikva Forum in Jerusalem on April 30, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Israel, whose latest offer reportedly includes a 40-day pause in fighting and the release of almost a thousand Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli hostages, is thought to be making “dramatic” concessions, including in lowering the number of hostages it is seeking to see released in a first stage of the deal.

“We will wait for answers on Wednesday night and then decide” on sending a delegation to Cairo for talks, the Israeli official said. Hebrew media had reported on Monday evening that a delegation was expected to travel to Cairo on Tuesday for talks, but an Israeli official said that discussions were ongoing and no firm decision had been made.

While Israel expects the specific terms of the potential hostage release agreement to change in the coming days if Hamas shows interest in reaching a deal, one of the timelines under discussion is a 10-week pause in the fighting in exchange for 33 living hostages, a different Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

The numbers relate to hostages in a so-called humanitarian category — women, children, men over 50, and those who are sick.

A protester with a zipper over her mouth holds a poster showing pictures of Israeli hostages taken captive by Hamas and other terrorists in Gaza during the October 7 attacks, during a demonstration calling for their release in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on April 27, 2024. (Jack Guez / AFP)

“Israel has gone above and beyond in showing flexibility to reach a deal,” the official added.

Israel is also open to the possibility of Gazans moving back to the north of the Strip without going through Israeli security checks. One of the possibilities under examination is Egypt being responsible for security checks, the official said, though nothing has been finalized.

In no circumstance would Israel agree to declare an end to the war, the official stressed.

The Wall Street Journal, citing Egyptian officials, said that a proposal that Israel helped draft, but has not yet endorsed, would include “the release of at least 20 hostages over three weeks for an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners.”

The truce could then be extended for one hostage release per day.

It reported that a second phase would include a 10-week truce during which Israel and Hamas would discuss a release of more hostages held in Gaza and a pause in fighting for up to a year. Hamas was initially positive about that proposal but balked over the fact that it does not end the war permanently.

Channel 12 reported Tuesday that Israel is willing to release 900 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for 20-33 hostages — far beyond what it has offered until now — which would translate to 27 to 45 prisoners per hostage.

In March, Israel was willing to release 950 prisoners for 40 hostages. In November, at the height of the ground campaign in Gaza, 240 prisoners were freed in a weeklong truce in exchange for the release of 105 hostages, 81 of whom were Israeli.

Illustrative: Members of the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad terror groups release Israeli hostages to the Red Cross, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, November 28, 2023. (Flash90)

Amid the ongoing diplomatic efforts to secure an agreement, US President Joe Biden held phone calls with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani late Monday, confirming that the three countries would “work to ensure the full implementation” of the terms of a potential Gaza ceasefire deal.

In near-identical readouts from the two calls, the White House said Biden told both leaders that the issue of the over 100 hostages held by the terror group since its October 7 massacre in southern Israel “is now the only obstacle to an immediate ceasefire and relief for civilians in Gaza.”

The leaders also discussed the efforts to increase humanitarian aid to the Strip, the White House added, while the Egyptian president’s office said that they noted the dangers of a looming Israel Defense Forces operation in Rafah, where over 1 million Palestinians are sheltering amid the war.

Hebrew media has reported that the Rafah invasion will commence in the next 48 to 72 hours if a hostage release deal is not reached.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi approved final plans on Monday for military action in Rafah, according to the Ynet news site.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi (center) attends a meeting at the IDF’s Southern Command Headquarters in Beersheba, April 21, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

According to the unsourced report, IDF tanks are lined up on the Gaza border and ready for the green light to begin the offensive, considered by Israel to be the final push necessary to uproot Hamas’s fighting forces from the Strip, despite warnings of a humanitarian disaster if civilians are not moved out of harm’s way.

The tactical plans were completed over the last few days, according to Ynet, and include a phased invasion that can be halted or delayed in case of progress in hostage talks.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Hamas on Monday to swiftly accept Israel’s latest and “extraordinarily generous” proposal for a Gaza truce to secure a release of hostages after a senior official from the Palestinian terror group said it had no “major issues” with the most recent offer.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Cameron also described the Israeli proposal as “generous.”

Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday, the first stop in his seventh trip to the Middle East since the war in Gaza erupted on October 7, when thousands of terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air, and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages, mostly civilians, amid many acts of brutality and sexual assault.

Blinken reiterated that the US could not support an Israeli ground operation on Rafah — where Israel says four intact Hamas battalions are holed up — “in the absence of an [Israeli] plan to ensure that civilians will not be harmed.”

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah on April 29, 2024. (AP/Mohammad Jahjouh)

Blinken, speaking at the opening of a meeting with Gulf Arab states, said the most effective way to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza and create space for a more lasting solution was to get a ceasefire that allowed the release of hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7.

Israel estimates that 129 of those hostages remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November. Four hostages were released prior to that, and three were rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered, and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says that more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Strip, but the number cannot be independently verified and is believed to include both Hamas fighters and civilians, some of whom were killed as a consequence of the terror group’s own rocket misfires.

The Israel Defense Forces says it has killed over 13,000 terrorists in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 who were killed inside Israel on and immediately following October 7. The army also says 263 soldiers have been killed since the beginning of the ground invasion.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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